In a speech to be delivered at an international defence and security dialogue in Sydney tomorrow Fiji's former Prime Minister Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka says, while Australia has been shielding itself behind a post-coup wall of correctness, other powers such as China have been settling in to new relationships with his strategically important nation.
Australia imposed sanctions on Fiji in 2006 and has vowed to keep them in place until democracy is restored.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka, former Prime minister of Fiji and leader of the 1987 coups
RABUKA: The relationship, the diplomatic relationship between Australia and Fiji has never been as bad as it is. It is important to immediately restore relationships because of the undue attention and influence that we are now getting from Asian countries. On the other hand they may be the natural partners we should have had all the time because we are Pacific, Oceania, Asia-Pacific neighbours. However, we cannot change history, the way it has gone in the past and we have a lot of Chinese influence in the Pacific now.
GARRETT: You warn that Fiji's easy entry for Asian citizens has made Fiji a target for people wishing to gain access to other countries in the region and you also talk about the growing influence of China. Commentators are divided on how far Fiji's new relationship with China has gone what are you seeing on the ground?
RABUKA: What we are seeing on the ground is that a lot of Chinese influence has come in; road engineers, they are mining bauxite in Vanuatu Levu, they have started building bridges. Interestingly, though, the post-cyclone efforts did not come from them. They waited for the tenders to be given out for the rehabilitation work and they came in. The assistance came from our former traditional partners.
GARRETT: Just how much of a game-changer is Fiji's new relationship with China?
RABUKA: It is big. We will probably get the same scale of assistance we were getting from Australia and New Zealand and American, but it is also potentially bigger in that it is a bigger market. Everything we are selling to the European Union and our neighbours, we can sell to China. Maybe we will get the same things in return, different brand.
GARRETT: Fiji is also pursuing relationships with other countries. They have upped their involvement with the Melanesian Spearhead group, they've set up new meetings with Pacific Island countries that don't include Australia and New Zealand. Fiji has also joined the non-aligned movement and it is Chair, this year, of the Group of 77. To what extent is this burst of diplomatic activity been driven by Australia's sanctions on Fiji?
RABUKA: I think the full brunt of the blame should be put on Australia. However, how much benefit Fiji will get from all these things is debateable, in fact doubtful. I don't think we are gaining anything by doing all the things we are now doing.
GARRETT: Do you think these new relationships have the potential to permanently diminish Australia's relations with Fiji, and even beyond that into the Pacific?
RABUKA: It has a lot of potential. As I said all the things we are now selling to Australia we can sell to other, to china and everything we are buying from Australia we can buy from china or from Asia, Asian countries.
GARRETT: Fiji has tried to set up these new institutions which don't include Australia. Do you think they will be ongoing?
RABUKA: I think they would be ongoing but what value really is in it, not only for Fiji but for the other partners, the co-operative partners. They will have good relationships with Australia. They do not need to shut the door on Australia and the Australian doors will still be open to them so after some time they will normalise and Fiji will be isolated.
GARRETT: You say it is very important that Australia restore relations in the post-2014 era but it is not looking as if democracy will be restored. The interim Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, has promised elections but he has brought in a draconian political party decree and he has also rejected the recommendations of the widely-respected Yash Ghai Constitutional Commission. What prospects do you see for Fiji to have truly open and democratic elections in 2014?
RABUKA: It all depends on what people see democracy as. For a long time Indonesia had a democratic government and they still evolving their electoral system. China calls itself a democracy. So democracy a la Australian politics, if that is what you are looking for in Fiji it will be a long time coming. But as we did in the post-1987 election, we will just have to start, make a start, and the constitution that will come out of this constituent assembly may not be as widely acclaimed, or even accepted at all, by the people but it will be something like the 1990 constitution that we had to, we were forced, or the people of Fiji were forced to accept to get us back into the road back to democracy acceptable to Fiji.
GARRETT: Australia's sanctions are intended to help Fiji restore democracy. Are you saying those sanctions should be lifted democracy or not?
RABUKA: I think they should be lifted, democracy or not, because Australia trades and has relationships with some doubtful democracies around the world so I do not think that Fiji, small Fiji, we are just a small player in international affairs and we need to take whatever crumbs we can get and move on. Pride can get you going down very, very quickly and at the moment our national morale is very low, our sporting teams don't do as well as they used to and people are just crying out. We just want stability and that stability can be under pure democracy or impure democracy.
GARRETT: How important is it that the coup-culture end in Fiji?
RABUKA: It is very important and that is one thing I regret, introducing it into Fiji. It was wrong for a professional military officer like I was at the time to do that and I regret it. And I must say that I was weak to succumb to the will of the defeated politicians of the time.
GARRETT: So in that context what do you see as the proper role for the military going forward?
RABUKA: It will continue to be an internal security organisation for the government of the day but it can also be developed to be a useful co-operative partner in higher defence requirements in the region. But immediately after normalisation of relationships we can very quickly go and work with Australia and New Zealand in post-cyclone, post-natural disaster rehabilitation work because our people infrantrymen and engineers are very easily absorbed into bigger organisations and we have shown that in peacekeeping.
GARRETT: At the moment signs aren't good for the restoration of democracy. How does Fiji get from where it is back to a situation where it can restore relations with Australia?
RABUKA: First is the election. The election has to be seen to be a fair election. The rules that govern the election may not be perfect but it is an election similar to the 1992 elections in Fiji and after that parliament must be free to do what it is voted in to do by the people. And also at that time, the military must gear itself to working subserviently to the government or the parliament of the day.
GARRETT: Considering the political developments in Fiji recently, what chance do you think there is that that will actually happen?
RABUKA: There is a good chance. It all involves mature and responsible dialogue between the elected leaders and the military leaders at this time.
GARRETT: Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama has been in the job for some time. What do you think he has in mind as a succession plan?
RABUKA: Well, in the army it looks like the next level of senior officers believe the same way he believes and in politics he probably want to go into that. He'll probably also see that it is totally different and then he will probably not like to lose the loyalty of the officers and the men and women of the forces once he takes off his uniform. I saw that. Although the relationship remained very good while I was in office, it didn't mean they would obey what I wanted. They have to obey what their commander says and the commander has to work in accordance with the will of parliament.
GARRETT: Considering the current political situation in Fiji what action would you like to see from Australia's Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, in terms of Australia's sanctions on Fiji?
RABUKA: Lift the sanctions before the elections and in that way it will encourage the people that things are beginning to normalise.
GARRETT: How do ordinary citizens in Fiji see Australia's stance?
RABUKA: They don't really mind. They don't even feel the effect. It is only when people are asking for visas to come here that they get to fill in those forms 'Are you related to Bainimarama? Do you have anybody in the army in your family?' and those things, and then it hits them. My own cousin was in the Prime Minister's office and couldn't get medical treatment in Australia or New Zealand and died, and died in Fiji. He was a senior legal adviser in the Prime Minister's office but his son was in the army and he just didn't bother asking to come away for treatment. Only when it touches us personally like that do we feel it but then there are other doors open.
GARRETT: Some critics of the Bainimarama government say Australia should actually put tougher sanctions in place because the interim Prime Minister has shown little sign that he is really interested in genuine democracy. What do you say to them?
RABUKA: I say to them that Bainimarama is not Fiji. The way Bainimarama is acting is not the way Fiji is acting. The way he is thinking is not the way Fiji is thinking. Fiji is still a very friendly nation to Australia. The leaders may not be as friendly as the people but they are a minority.